Latest release: Moonglow (Nuclear Blast)Website: www.avantasia.net
Behind the light hearted jester antics within the stage persona of German musician Tobias Sammet lies the solid work ethic of a dedicated singer, experienced musical director, inspired composer and a prolific creative visionary. As the driving force behind both the power metal band Edguy and the metal based yet operatic Avantasia project, he has ultimately overseen a sprawling discography, the quality of which only increases with each release. Avantasia started as a creative studio outlet but has since taken on a life of its own seeing the all-star band, which features a smorgasbord of guest rock and metal luminaries, morph into a touring juggernaut that has graced the main stages of the biggest metal festivals in the world.
Eight albums in, the latest release of Moonglow is infused with Victorian Gothic literary influences yet the songs encompass a wide variety of styles in superb musical bombast without losing control of the storytelling aspects that Avantasia and thus implicitly Sammet does so well. Musically, whilst still symphonic metal at heart, it casts a wide net with clear nods to many artists including Queen, Meatloaf, Kansas, Helloween, Queensrÿche and even Kreator, plus a cover of 80s hit ‘Maniac’, just for kicks. Better yet, this release will also include a jaunt to Australia for the very first time. Loud Online gladly took a call from the forthright yet instantly engaging and amusing Sammet to discuss the latest Avantasia album and impending tour.
Hello, Tobias, you’re finally touring Australia after eight albums. Are you doing a storytelling type set similar to what you’ve done at Wacken Open Air in Germany?
We’re going to do the full show in Australia that we do in the European tour and even though it has got a very epic and theatrical approach, we are not going to do some storytelling. It is not going to be opera presentation on stage. What I think we will do in Australia is most of the new album and then there will be two hours left for old material from the other seven albums. So it is going to be a best of show with the new album and we are going to have great guests on stage in Australia as well. We will have the same guests as we have everywhere like Geoff Tate [Queensrÿche], Eric Martin [Mr. Big], Ronnie Atkins [Pretty Maids], Jørn Lande [Masterplan], Bob Catley, singer of the great Magnum and in the line-up we have Oliver Hartmann , Sascha Paeth, Felix Bohnke plus Herbie Langhans [Seventh Avenue] and Adrienne Cowan [Seven Spires ] who is an amazing female vocalist. She can do any kinds of vocals, she is so diverse and so she can sing so many different styles. It is great to have her because Amanda [Somerville – mezzo-soprano] is not available for that tour. It is going to be a great show and if I was you, I wouldn’t want to miss it. I am not going to miss it myself. I hope, you never know.
Indeed. The logistics of doing concept albums must create some difficulties.
Ah, not really because it gives you some kind of frame to walk on and at the same time it is up to you how much freedom you will have within that frame because you built the frame. I came up with that frame and I wanted to have a great imaginative setting, highly inspired by the Victorian revival of the Gothic novels of dark romanticism [era authors such as Arthur Machen or Algernon Blackwood]. It is a very eerie and grotesque setting about a misfit creature that is created into a world where it doesn’t find an attachment to its environment. It cannot cope with the reality of the bold and beautiful and the expectations that go along with it. I can relate to that creature and that concept gave me the chance to pretty much get things off my chest and to write about me and to write about me growing up. I was never an unhappy kid but I always found the beauty in things that others didn’t find beautiful. It started with my musical taste but in general I was always kind of drawn to the more grotesque things of what people considered to be grotesque. Now I know that phrase grotesque but when I was younger, I did not know the word. It was just that what was normal to me seemed to be abnormal to some other people and it was things that did not hurt anybody. I think that if you look around in our environment, we are all talked into…I mean, people expect from us to adjust to our environment and it is okay to adjust to cope with your environment but it is not okay to expect somebody to throw his conviction overboard and it is not okay to expect somebody to be somebody else and I think that is what constantly happens. It also happens in the metal world I am afraid to say. In the music business, record companies will say, ‘oh, you should do it this way’, to which I say, ‘no, I don’t think I should do it this way. This is what I have to offer. Take it or leave it. You want honest art? You want heavy metal? You want a rebel? You want a free spirited person to function on all cylinders, then you have to take what that person has to say.’ Also, I wrote that concept when the Ghostlights tour was over. I felt like everybody else had a clear idea of what I was going to do next and everybody else expected it and I did not want to do that. I could not, I was thinking, ‘hey man, you’ve just written seventeen records and you’ve just been on a world tour for fifteen years constantly and you’ve done all this, you’re running two bands. You’re working like clockwork, you’ve set the pace and it is your own fault because your creativity allowed it.’ But it is not still [the case] and everybody else has started to take it for granted and demanded it. Everybody gets used to me delivering and I wanted to break out of that. That is also part of what made Avantasia and what made this new album what it is.
So would you say that the latest album has a Frankenstein narrative to it? That story being about a reluctant monster simply freaking out at the world.
Yeah, absolutely, it pretty much starts as like a monster is being unleashed on the world. It is not trying to take revenge, it is more like it wants to get away. It doesn’t want to be a monster, it just wants to live in peace and it doesn’t want to be somebody it is not. It doesn’t want to be ridiculed, it just wants to live its own life and I think that there are a lot of monsters like that out there, not necessarily evil monsters but people who have a hard time adjusting to what is expected of them. That topic was dear to my heart and to me, writing music is a catharsis and it is also a therapy. It is a letting out of things and getting things off my chest.
Surely Sascha would be aware of that too being that he is both an in-demand producer and also being a key part of Avantasia?
Yeah well, Sascha is workhorse. He is doing so much stuff and you know, when he was younger, his output was even wilder. I think now that he is in his late forties that he is slowing down a little bit because he has said that, ‘I can’t walk the pace that I used to walk when I was twenty nine’ or something like that and I understand it. But he has done so incredibly much, doing all the Kamelot, the Rhapsody work, he’s done Angra, he did Epica and then there are all of the smaller bands in between. Ah well, he’s insane. Ha-ha, constantly working.
You’ve also worked again with Michael Rodenburg [keyboards, piano and orchestration]. How did he help with the orchestration and the keyboards this time?
He is a freak. He is the best that you can imagine. Most of the time I tend him my keyboard ideas. Sometimes he just gets the chords and then he does something with it. Sometimes I will send him demos with my keyboard tracks and I make a very, very rough layout with the right elements there and with the right notes there and everything. Then he transforms that into all the little details and he makes that sound like an orchestra. He also writes the scores in case you need to record something with real instruments and not use software instruments. For example, the Celtic harp, it’s great, he arranges the Celtic harp and then he plays it on the keyboard like the harpist would play it with her fingers and many strings. Then he goes, ‘maybe we should find a proper Celtic harp’ and he found one. Miro [Michael Rodenberg] just wrote down the scores for it and gave it to her and she played it. That is just a fantastic way of working. He is crazy, you know, he never studied that kind of stuff but it was really funny when six years ago we worked with a proper orchestra on The Mystery of Time album where we had a lot of orchestration; he programmed everything on the keyboard and then he wrote the scores for sixty five to seventy people from the orchestra. He wrote all of the individual scores, gave it to the conductor and the conductor looked at it and said, ‘yeah, that is pretty much it.’ So then they recorded it with an orchestra and he had never done that before.
For guitar playing tasks with Avantasia, is it basically Sascha or does Oliver add content as well?
It is mainly Sascha and then Oliver played some guitar. Oliver sang some backing vocals and he played leads in the second part of ‘The Raven Child’ demo but apart from that there were not so many lead guitar parts. There are more vocal parts on this new record and that is something that you can never plan. You just find out once the album is done. You find out, ‘oh, that’s not really many lead guitar parts on it’ this time.
I was interested to see that Mille Petrozza from Kreator turned up to contribute. I didn’t expect to see Mille on an Avantasia release.
We spoke about doing that for a long time. Mille is a friend of mine and we spoke about it for a very long time but we never really had the right part. I had written that song, ‘Book of Shallows’ and there was this one part where I thought that I needed an aggressive voice. I love Mille as a person and also as a primal artist. In saying primal, I mean it is very authentic, original and not very artificial with what he does. It is not an effect, he is the real deal. He is an authentic, honest, ass-kicking artist and that is why I said, ‘Mille, now I have the right part, you’ve got to do it’ and he immediately agreed. He is a good friend and he is a great guy.
There are many diverse elements on the album. From the first track which is quite long, it includes an interlude with some atmospherics before it starts up again and sounds like a Queen track.
It is almost ten minutes long and yeah, you know, you’re right, composing a song, we’ve never been that band that had huge hit singles. There was also a discussion with the record label in the beginning when I decided that ‘The Raven Child’ should be the first single. They said, ‘are you sure, it is almost eleven minutes long’ and I asked ‘why, what is the problem?’ They said, ‘well, it doesn’t really fit into the radio format’, so I asked, ‘okay, which of my songs from over the past twenty five years has ever fit into the commercial radio format?’ It is not just about the length, there are some subtle details like, oh, heavy guitars and double bass drums which will not get played on radio anyway and that is all over the place with my records. So, you know, I didn’t really care about it and I don’t care about how long a song is; I want to compose something and to me it doesn’t make a difference. Our fans know that we embellish our sound and arrangements and that everything is very much put together with a lot of love for detail and it has never been an issue. Our fans can handle long songs and as for the rest of the world, you know, I cannot change the rest of the world. If you were to adjust to modern listening behaviour – I was told about it by an industry person, they said, ‘look, Avantasia could be way bigger if you’d adjust to young audiences and if you’d change your sound. What you do is very dusty, it is considered to be old fashioned and you don’t appeal, with your sound, to young people.’ I said, ‘look, you don’t get the idea of Avantasia, it is not about delivering fast food and adjusting to the modern music listening behaviour.’ This is about my vision and it is about my ideas. There are a lot of people who understand and have a different concept of music than the mainstream kids of today. It is really funny if you go to those streaming services or platforms; a song is being counted as being listened to if somebody has listened to it for more than thirty seconds or something like that. So that says everything about our modern music society. So if you have listened for five minutes, then you have listened to the record. No, after five minutes into the record you have not even begun to understand anything about my music. Ha.
Agreed. I suppose it is fair to say that Avantasia has a signature sound and part of that includes the various vocalists and how they interact throughout the sometimes complex songs.
I’m really happy about it. Some people ask me, ‘how would you describe the sound of Avantasia?’ and I cannot do it. I think that it just sounds like Avantasia and I’m really, really proud of that, you know. When we started out, we sounded a little bit like Helloween with different singers when we did The Metal Opera and I think we’ve opened up. There are some songs [on Moonglow] like ‘Requiem for a Dream’ or whatever that still sound a lot like Helloween but that is also because Michael Kiske is singing on it and there are fast, double bass drums but still I think that people who know Avantasia, when they listen to a new Avantasia album, they will immediately identify it as Avantasia. In some passages we are repetitive but overall I think it is not very repetitive with what we are doing and that is why I think that it is a great thing to have this signature sound.
Finally, what is it like playing Rock Fest Barcelona and Wacken Open Air and looking out to see masses of people?
It is surreal when you go onstage. You just feel a lot of energy and you go out. Like in Wacken, there is eighty thousand people and you see this huge ocean of people raising their hands. For the first ten minutes, you don’t think at all, you are just trying to cope with the energy that is coming from the people and then you are on auto-pilot. You can only do it if you have done this many times before and then you get through it. It is great, it is a very uplifting experience but it is hard to describe. Even now, at this point while I am sitting here in my office, I cannot really…I don’t really feel what I feel when I go out onstage. It is really hard for me to describe what I think while I am in that situation because whilst that situation is so extraordinary, it is great. In general, it is great to go onstage. The first moment that the light is dark, you know it is time to go out and do your stuff, the audience says hello for the first time and everybody is in a cheerful mood, screaming and singing along to the songs. You first make eye contact with the first row once you are running out of the dark and onto the stage. It is special and that feeling is also part of the reason that I’m doing it.